Saturday 14 June 2008

The Call of Cthulhu (2005)

This was my Christmas present from my good wife in 2005 and we watched very shortly thereafter. Two and a half years, though, is far too long to go without seeing such a unique piece of filmmaking so we pulled out the DVD again. The story is H P Lovecraft's The Call of Cthulhu, written in 1928 and long considered unfilmable because of the way it leaps around in its narrative, but Andrew Leman of the H P Lovecraft Historical Society took on the challenge and made the film according to the style that wold have been appropriate for the time of the story's publication.

Now the silent era in the US officially ended in 1931 with Charlie Chaplin's City Lights, which itself had been an anomaly in an industry that had taken the first steps into the world of sound in 1927 and had almost entirely switched over by 1929. The rest of the world took longer, notably in the far east where the Russians, Chinese and Japanese continued to make silent films throughout the thirties. The highly definitive Silent Era website 'firmly judge Modern Times to be a mute sound film', and I'll trust them. However I've long wondered why people hadn't gone back and used the silent style later. Well Leman did precisely that. This is meant to appear like a silent film made in 1928, as far as was humanly possible.

We open with a man in an asylum finishing a jigsaw puzzle and talking about what drove him mad. He explains about how he looked through the papers of his late great-uncle and discovered a large collection of bizarre notes. We then follow the great-uncle's investigation in a collection of nested flashbacks. It begins with Henry Wilcox, a man who wrote down and painted the contents of his dreams, full of strange cities and weird sounds, during a long mad month of March 1925.

It meant plenty to the man's great-uncle because it tied closely to the narrative of Inspector Lagrasse, a New Orleans police inspector, made 17 years earlier. He had told his story of dark voodoo rituals in the Louisiana swamps to a gathering of archaeologists in 1908 at Saint Louis University. One archaeologist there tied the story back to the 1870s in Eskimo country. The final piece of the puzzle comes through a chance newspaper story about the Alert, an fishing trawler found abandoned in the South Pacific. Only one man survived the Alert and the investigation into its abandonment, and so the great-uncle follows his trail, which takes him from Boston to New Zealand to Australia to Norway, only to find the man that he seeks is dead. However his journal survives and on the story runs.

Some of the graphics are pretty poor, notably the shots of scale at dread Rl'yeh with sailors looking up or down at either ends of huge stone structures. A few shots of boats are obviously models. Then again this is effectively an amateur film, made by devotees of the material rather than by professional filmmakers with something even approaching a budget. Given the lack of resources, the work done here is astounding, including the claymation Cthulhu. The acting is variable but because of the sheer size of the cast very few of the actors get much screen time to build any character. This is a film very driven by story and this isn't just Lovecraft, it's one of the key pieces in the foundation of the Cthulhu mythos, something that became massively important to the Weird Tales crowd and which grows larger every year.

Leman patently isn't F W Murnau or Fritz Lang but he's a talented filmmaker who has both vision and guts to follow an approach that could hardly be described as mainstream or commercially viable. I hope he makes his money back and I hope he makes more. I feel sure that this will be one of what will become many such cinematic time capsules as the cost of filmmaking shrinks and the means of distribution becomes cheaper and easier. I know thing's like Pickman's Model or The Rats in the Walls would be high on my list of films to make if I ever buy a HD camcorder. Silent and in black and white, of course.

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